Alex Goldmark is a senior producer in the newsroom for New Tech City and Transportation Nation.
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If the flared tensions around cycling in New York City ease a bit this year, it might have to do with a more targeted approach to policing bike riders, according to NYPD data provided to Transportation Nation.
Tickets to cyclists this year are on pace with 2011, but New York Police Department Deputy Chief Brian McCarthy tells TN that delivery cyclists are getting more police attention than last year, as are locations where bike-related accidents occur. Data show fewer red light tickets have been issued than during the same period last year, while riding on the sidewalk remains the top offense.
Anecdotal reports from cyclists point to a greater understanding of bike traffic laws by riders and police alike. Last year much ruckus was caused when police held a ticket trap for cyclists not riding in the bike lane, which is legal on most streets. Though similar speed-trap like efforts aimed at cyclists continue, more cyclists have told TN they got off with warnings and were handed educational pamphlets in place of tickets than in the past. It's not a vast shift in policy, but it's a slightly kinder and gentler Operation Safe Cycle, or as Chief McCarthy called it, "more focused."
The number of cyclists in NYC has quadrupled in the past decade. The city has laid down more than 250 miles of new bike lanes since 2006. The (delayed) CitiBike bike share program was set to unleash 10,000 rent-by-the-hour bikes on city streets this past summer, along with 600 "docks" on sidewalks, a plan the New York Post framed as an invasion. In a crowded city like New York, every square foot is precious to someone. So the trend toward New Bike City rubbed some the wrong way. Tensions flared. Cyclists were painted by detractors of the trend as effete hipster transplants. The bike-loving New York media corp, (tabloids aside), regularly wrote paeans to the city's mayor and transportation commissioner for pushing forward with a plan to make the city more livable.
By last year, bikes had became a cultural powder keg in NYC, and the elite power brokers had their fight: Brooklyn's 0.9-mile Prospect Park West bike lane, which launched a legal contest that came to symbolize competing visions and styles for running New York. At the same time, police entered the mix with a crackdown on scofflaw cyclists.
By the time Operation Safe Cycle kicked off last January, it met with complaints from both sides.
Cyclists argued it was too sudden, improperly targeted at the wrong offenses, and not focused enough on educating the city's thousands of cyclists who, like pedestrians, are accustomed to flouting traffic signals with impunity. Conversely, many non-cycling New Yorkers felt threatened by dangerous bike riders or inconvenienced by bikes riding in traffic with their cars, and demanded a more immediate end to the bike free-for-all.
The Evolution of Operation Safe Cycle
Twenty-one months after Operation Safe Cycle began, Transportation Nation sat down with the NYPD's Brian McCarthy to get an update and go over some of the statistics of bike traffic enforcement in NYC. "Our goal is to improve the safety not only of the public but of the cyclists," he stressed throughout the conversation.
In 2011, the NYPD issued 48,556 summonses to cyclists. That's about 133 tickets a day.
Police also made more than 12,000 "contacts" about bike safety and traffic rules. A contact is anytime a police officer contacts a person or a group about bike safety. It could be an auxiliary officer handing out a warning and a pamphlet to a single bike rider, or it could be the Central Park Precinct Commanding Officer taking questions during a packed community meeting.
Both the number of tickets and the number of contacts are roughly steady when compared to 2011 -- though the make up is slightly different. Most notably, police issued less tickets for the failure to stop at a signal, which include red light running and can cost $270 per ticket. Bike riders pay the same fines motor vehicle drivers do.
The biggest complaint about cyclists -- and one of the more dangerous practices -- is riding on the sidewalk. "I’m a lifelong city resident and I see that and I’m disturbed by that and that’s why ... in 2012 I think Operation Safe Cycle has been a little more focused. And out of our 35,726 bicycle summonses thus far in 2012, 22,297 have been for bicycles on the sidewalk," McCarthy told Transportation Nation. "The overwhelming majority are for riding on the sidewalk … you have to be able to walk on the sidewalk and not dodge someone. Literally."
The Case of Central Park
As for the contacts, consider Central Park. Last year police issued tickets to cyclists for running red lights in the park with such fervor that some City Council members pushed for, and won, a reprogramming of the 40 or so of the park's stoplights to make it easier to ride without running a light during the periods when the drive is not open to cars.
By comparison, this summer the NYPD placed auxiliary officers at busy intersections along the Loop as crossing guards in an attempt to force the throngs of all park users -- including pedestrians -- to obey the traffic signals. The officers also handed out an NYPD pamphlet with the rules of the road and tips for safe cycling. This is the education bike activists had cried for last spring.
“What we’ve tried to do is get the summonses that are unique to the conditions," McCarthy said. "In Central Park, for example, people go to the park, I think they let their guard down, and they are at the lights crossing with a little less attention... than they would in a regular city street." So they're more vulnerable to being hit by a bike.
"As a result," he said, "151 of our summons [in Central Park] were issued for failure to stop for pedestrians, 65 summonses to failing to stop at a traffic signal." That's out of 423 total tickets issued to cyclists during roughly the first 10 months of this year. By contrast, in a far shorter period last year, the police had issued 230 tickets in the first three months of 2011.
Delivery Cyclists Getting More Tickets
Ask a typical New Yorker what the worst bike behavior is, and you'll probably get some complaint about bike delivery men or bike messengers running wild. The NYPD appears to be getting the same message. They didn't track commercial bike ticketing as a category in 2011, but so far this year, one in every three tickets to a cyclist has gone to commercial cyclists.
"In 2012, in an effort to have more of an impact on specific areas that are impacting on safety, based on complaints and observation, commercial bike enforcement, delivery enforcement, has been expanded and has been monitored," McCarthy said. "As a result, there have been 8,959 commercial bike summonses issued in 2012." Independently of the NYPD, the city's Department of Transportation is currently engaging in a commercial cyclist education campaign -- an effort that will turn to enforcement next year.
Bike Accidents Are Up
"Traffic accidents are down year-to-date. However, bicycle accidents are up 2.7 percent,” McCarthy said. The worst precinct for accidents involving bikes is the 90th, which covers Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood and saw 113 accidents through September 23. This was also the most deadly precinct for cyclists last year. Central Park comes in second, with 98 accidents so far this year -- 91 of them involving a motor vehicle hitting a bike, and seven where a bike hit a pedestrian.
The NYPD closely tracks traffic crime and crashes through a program called Traffic Stat. Each week three precincts present their latest data to top brass. Bike accidents and crimes involving bikes are also included. Before each meeting, officers will photograph trouble spots where two or more accidents have taken place so the group can review and propose action -- anything from traffic stops at that location to suggesting an infrastructure change.
There have been 2,968 bike-related accidents in New York City this year, most of them car-cyclist collisions. The NYPD only recently began tracking cyclist-pedestrian crashes and could not provide that data.
By comparison, there have been 141,454 traffic crashes in total in the city this year, slightly lower than the same period last year.
If past trends hold, then the number of new cyclists on the streets is up more than 8 percent this year, making the 2.7 percent increase in bike accidents a mixed numbers game. The Department of Transportation would not comment on the figures, but said that as cycling has increased fourfold in the past decade, serious injuries to cyclists have fallen by 70 percent.
Caroline Samponaro of Transportation Alternatives, a bike advocacy group, said the apparent shift of the NYPD to include more education for cyclists is a welcome one, but added that "dangerous driving is by far the leading cause of injury and death on New York City streets and we continue to call on the NYPD to make protecting New Yorkers from dangerous drivers a priority."
Police have issued 35,726 tickets to cyclists this year out of 685,616 total motor vehicle summonses. There was no known case of a cyclist hitting and killing a pedestrian last year. In the same time period, nearly 300 cyclists and pedestrians were killed when struck by cars and trucks.